What the #@%& is going on at Wallowa Lake?

By Gary Lewis

Gary Lewis Books and DVDs

If you call yourself a kokanee fisherman, you might think you know what a big fish looks like. 18 inches, maybe 20 inches, tops, You might say that is about as big as they get. You might have a hard time imagining Jerry Logosz's seven-pound fish that set the new Oregon state record last July at Wallowa Lake.

When the news hit the streets, there was a collective jaw-dropping among koke addicts around the northwest. Seven pounds? Wallowa Lake

Last year was a good one for the record books. Two new world records were set with a mammoth triploid rainbow from Saskatchewan and a gigantic German brown from Michigan.

Wallowa Lake was back in the news in February of this year, when Glen Thiel weighed in with a 7.51-pound kokanee that was 25 inches long with a girth of 18.25 inches. The 81-year-old Thiel knew he had a big one, but he bled the fish out like most long-time kokanee fishermen do. He stopped in to show it off at the Sports Corral in nearby Joseph and when they put it on the scale, he became the latest fisherman to weigh in a potential state record.

Less than a month later, Jack Teece and his bride, Wan, stopped in to pick up some maggots at the Sports Corral in Joseph, Oregon. They were on the water by about 9:00 in the morning.

They were back in the store by 4:00. Wan had caught a big fish and she and Jack wanted to show it off before they took it home to eat it. 

Brad Snook was in the store that day. "She was awful excited to go home and cut that puppy up. When we put it on the scale, she got even more excited."

The needle pointed to 8-1/2 pounds and Brad pointed Wan and Jack up the street to the grocery store. They weighed it there and the next stop was an appointment with Bill Knox at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife office in Enterprise. The scales told the story at 8.23 pounds. The fish stretched the tape to 26.5 inches with a girth of more than 16 inches. It is probable that this fish will be confirmed the next Oregon state record and eclipse the current United States record.

The previous Oregon state record kokanee was pulled out of the lake in 2001, a fish that weighed 6.74 pounds. Now, three record book fish have come from the lake in a span of nine months, the latest, caught by a recent émigré from Thailand.

The current world record kokanee came from Okanagan Lake in British Columbia on June 18, 1988. It weighed 9 pounds, 6 ounces. At the current pace that big kokanee are coming out of Wallowa Lake, that record is in serious jeopardy.

The Race for the Record

If you are looking at the calendar, trying to figure out when you can make the trip to Wallowa Lake in northeast Oregon, you are not alone.

Word is getting around that there are big fish to be caught. "It has been fairly crazy," Snook said. "The last week of January, people were packing boats down through the snow to get out on the lake."

One day in March, there were two boats that brought in three fish that tipped the scales to 7.2, 7.2 and 7. 3 pound fish, but that 7.5-pounder had already been caught. One of the boats had a total catch of ten kokanee and they weighed a combined 44 pounds.

A lot of the fish have been caught in deep water. Jigging is not as popular as trolling on Wallowa Lake, but that has been changing, according to Snook. "They are pretty much hunting the fish and then they sit on top of them and pester them with the jig. We have sold a lot of P-Line Kokanator jigs." The orange finish seems to be the favorite and 3/4- to 1-ounce jigs are favored to go deep, down as far as 150 feet. 

Five-blade flasher systems are popular on Wallowa Lake. "Most people have bumped up to 10-pound main line. That's not sneaking up on the fish, that's hanging on to the investment on the other end," Snook said.

Apex lures and Wedding Ring spinners have been some of the hottest trolling gear on the big lake. 

Wan Teece was rigged with Jack Lloyd flashers, two ounces of lead and a Mack's Lure Double Whammy, a Wedding Ring-style spinner. She tipped the hook with a fresh maggot.

When the battle was joined, Wan played the big fish well. Jack slipped the net under it five minutes later and they brought it aboard. Like all good kokanee anglers, keeping their fish for the table, they cut the gills to bleed the fish out.

"They were out on the water from about 9:00AM and it was pretty close to 4:00PM when they came in the store. They put in a good day's work for it."

What's Up at Wallowa Lake?

Unlike a lot of lakes where kokanee were introduced to feed our appetite for angling action, sockeye are native to Wallowa Lake. Historic runs of sockeye were strong in Wallowa Lake until 1916 when the lake's dam was enhanced. Sockeye still in the lake were landlocked.

Along with a lot of other northwest lakes, Wallowa was stocked with lake trout in the 1950s. And mysis shrimp were introduced not long after that. With a predator to control their numbers and an abundant food source, the kokanee began to grow to proportions unheard of in other waters.

Trophy trout expert Rick Arnold, of Rick's Trophy Mounts, of Bend, Oregon, expects that the record-breaking pace will continue through the summer thanks to a number of factors that have brewed a "Perfect Storm," as Arnold describes it, of big fish potential.

In 2002, a wall of mud slid into the river above the lake, effectively sealing off a lot of kokanee spawning habitat, meaning fewer fish, but bigger fish. And the Wallowa Lake kokanee are longer-lived than most landlocked sockeye. 

"There are five- and six-year-old fish in there," Arnold said, "not just two-year-old fish like we see in most kokanee fisheries. That gives them a reason to get bigger and you couple that with the freshwater shrimp and the impact on the spawning opportunities. That means there are probably less fish, which tends to produce bigger fish. They've gone through cycles of big kokanee in recent years, but never like this. We really could see a world record fish out of Wallowa Lake this year. We've never seen fish like this."

If you ever catch a record breaking trout, Arnold is the one to call to put it on the wall. He has a standing offer to mount, for free, any state or world record fish. This recent spate of landlocked sockeye slabs has kept him busy.

Kokanee anglers are a serious lot, single-minded in purpose, bent on bending their rods every chance they get to put a limit of landlocked sockeye in the cooler. Talk about taking a kokanee to the taxidermist and you are likely to get strange looks from your buddies. Most kokanee get mounted on platters and are consumed with lemon juice and tartar sauce, but a 7- or 8-pound kokanee just might be the fish of a lifetime.

"Wan's fish is the second biggest kokanee ever caught that we know of," Arnold said. "The funny thing about kokanee is that most people wouldn't think of mounting one, but these are the biggest kokanee we'll probably ever see."

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